Kevin Garrison stockpiles canisters of ink like he collects cans of limited edition SPAM flavors — feeding a passion for vintage-inspired design that overflows from his Waldo home studio.
“Some men get to a certain age and go buy a motorcycle or boats, and I went out and bought a Risograph printer,” the veteran graphic designer and founder of Risotopia said, describing his investment in a pricey piece of 35-year-old technology that offsets its printing limitations with vibrant, distinctive results.
Designed as a medium-sized photocopier, the Risograph is a specialty printer that inks pages one color at a time — an expensive entrepreneurial gambit with ink canisters costing about $800 each, Garrison said.
“This technology came out in the ’80s, and I suspect that all the copy shops had them for a hot moment before color copiers came out and they realized this was a ridiculous amount of work for a place to have to deal with,” he laughed, detailing the painstaking planning process involved in creating multi-color prints — running a color, then switching the large ink canisters to print the next. “[And the color registration] is not all that accurate, so if you were trying to print something tight, you’re going to be pulling your hair out.”
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The upside? It’s a perfect option for converting Garrison’s digital creations — intentionally designed to maximize the Risograph’s features and minimize its clunkier quirks — into commercially viable posters, stickers and zines, he said, comparing the method to traditional screen printing.
“Risograph gave me a way to take that digital experience and then print it on paper in a real tactile way and it connected all the dots for me,” Garrison said.
Click here to explore and purchase the designs at Kevin Garrison’s Risotopia.
Inking his own path
Having moved to Kansas City about 20 years ago from Oklahoma City, Garrison crafted a storied career for himself in the graphic design industry — now design director at Willoughby Design — but needed an outlet of his own.
“My main struggle has always been like ‘What kind of art do I want to do?’ Because when you work so long in the graphic design industry, you eventually realize you’re not exactly creating for yourself. You’re always trying to make other people’s ads and designs,” he said. “And when you’re finally able to be like, ‘OK, I can draw something for me,’ then it’s, ‘But what is my style? What do I want to say — to put out there in the world?’”
Printing opened the door to Garrison again being creative on his own time, he said, describing the path that led him from admiring Risograph projects on Pinterest in 2015 to hunting down a machine of his own on eBay.
“I ordered it and two or three weeks later it shows up in a huge shipping truck in my driveway on a pallet and I was like, ‘What have I done?” he said.
With many inky experiments and wide-ranging projects now added to his personal portfolio, it ultimately was a wise purchase, Garrison said.
“It has taken me quite a while to get back into something I feel good about,” he said, noting the years it took to collect ink cartridges since beginning his Risograph journey allowed him to reconnect with his creativity and personal passions — drawing inspiration from things like his love of tiki designs and classic toys.
Creativity in the can
Garrison found many of his specialty cans of SPAM on a trip to Hawaii, he said — drawn to their bold-colored packaging as much as their seemingly unusual flavors.
“You can’t get this SPAM on the mainland. SPAM with cheese? Are you kidding? That’s like ‘Oh, my God! Let’s do a grilled cheese sandwich with SPAM and cheese!’ There’s chorizo! Portuguese sausage!” Garrison said, describing his efforts to pack as many cans in two suitcases for a return trip from the island. “I couldn’t buy any more because it would’ve pushed my luggage over the weight limit.”
Even the SPAM has a purpose in Garrison’s studio — and not to be eaten.
He’s sketching the 12-piece collection, testing out angles and imagining how the cans of “Teriyaki” and “Hickory Smoke” could be used to create his next favorite design piece.
“It’s going to be a nice Warhol-esque SPAM,” Garrison laughed, noting he regularly shows off photos of his SPAM collection to curious friends. “Honestly, it took me a while to get all the colors that I needed, like the bright yellow and the greens.”
With designs fueled by his own interests, Garrison admitted they don’t always fall into the mainstream category — though the election year is pushing some of his more political work to the forefront.
His “Get Out the Vote” posters have been flying off the printer, he said, and online retailer Etsy has been pushing political art through its site.
Click here to check out some of Garrison’s most popular political and social movement-inspired designs.